Image Credit: ZC Comms
The government’s decision to trial a series of mass events – including a club night with no social distancing – before allowing university campuses to fully reopen further demonstrates the lack of care they have shown regarding the needs of students.
A series of trial events are currently being held as part of the government's roadmap out of lockdown. This includes allowing spectators to watch the upcoming FA cup final and a recent clubbing trial at the Bramley-Moore Dock warehouse in Liverpool. Although attendees were tested, there were no masks or social distancing at these club nights, which welcomed 6000 partygoers over two days.
While these trials are ongoing, university campuses are still barred from fully reopening. With the exception of practical courses, students are continuing to learn online, and many have still not returned to their accommodation or private housing. Exams and dissertation deadlines are looming at a time when already high stress levels are being compounded for many by a lack of resources and support.
University campuses are due to fully reopen on 17 May, but this is too little too late for a huge portion of the student population. At York for instance, this date marks the start of the common exam period, meaning that many undergraduate students will have no teaching from this point onwards. A huge portion of this year’s graduates will not receive any in-person teaching again.
Yet at the same time, if we are lucky we could see a DJ set or watch a football game. These pursuits are worthwhile and enjoyable. More importantly, these pastimes are invaluable when considering our health. It is great that our government wants to bring these back. What does not make sense though, is why these events have been allowed, and a full return to campus has not. If a trial club night without social distancing is deemed safe with testing in place, then why can’t universities equipped with both mitigations and testing return?
Institutions have spent thousands to adapt to teaching in the current climate, installing one way systems, reconfiguring spaces and purchasing cleaning equipment, hand sanitiser and PPE. The University of Manchester, for instance, estimates that it spent £5.9 million on Covid-19 safety just between March and September last year. Universities have the systems and equipment in place to welcome students and staff back in a Covid secure manner.This is all in addition to the increased access to rapid response testing nationwide, which includes availability for students on campus and in the form of home testing kits. Therefore, all of this begs the question; if these events are deemed safe then how – with all these precautions in place – are campuses not?
These choices come after months of students feeling ignored and unsupported, demonstrated by the rent strikes currently taking place at universities across the country, as well as building occupations seen in Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield. Ongoing protests highlight the frustration many are feeling, as we see the government continuing to show little care for the higher education sector and the unique challenges faced by the student population.
In October, students were blamed for a rise in Covid cases after being encouraged back to campus. In the announcement of the third lockdown, universities were not even mentioned, leaving students in the dark for days. Many international students have been stranded in the UK for months, or face huge testing fees in order to return to their studies. But even after all this, our learning is still not being prioritised. Unlike primary and secondary school students, we are yet again still waiting.
This is why seeing the return of mass events as a student is so frustrating. To read news articles about clubbing trails when you haven’t had in person teaching for the best part of a year is a bitter pill to swallow. I may have missed out on a ‘normal’ freshers week, but my priority isn’t going to Kuda or Flares; it’s seeing the inside of a lecture theatre. Nightlife helps our mental health, and we all want to socialise again, but we also need academic and pastoral support, on campus, in person.
I’m sure we are all excited for the return of nightlife to our cities, but it should not be a trade-off with the education that we pay for.
Our government wants to show caution, to protect our economy by revitalising dormant industries and this is understandable. No one wants to see these industries go under and we all want to return to all the things that we love. What we don’t want to see though is our government promoting a rhetoric of putting education before the economy, but not including the higher education sector in this ideal. It is not just unfair to students but to lecturers and other university staff who continue to have their jobs put at risk because of this uncertainty. If it is safe enough for football and DJ sets, then it should be safe enough for us to come back. The government should reconsider the choices they have made, listen to students, and realise that clubs are not more important than classrooms